It’s been six months since Celia Peoples last saw her 14-year-old son. He is only five hours away from her home in the small downstate town of Harrisburg, Ill., but Peoples, who is unemployed and barely making ends meet, can’t afford to take a car or a bus to visit him. Peoples’ son is incarcerated in the Illinois Youth Center Kewanee. “I just don’t have the money to go see him,” she said.
Peoples isn’t the only parent facing a similar predicament. Juvenile prisons hold minors aged 10 to 17--only one juvenile prison is in Cook County.
Mariame Kaba, executive director of Project NIA, a Chicago-based research and advocacy group, says that being able to visit their children is an ongoing issue for Chicago parents of incarcerated youth. For the past three years, Project NIA has been running a volunteer program that coordinates regular rides, nearly every month, for the parents of incarcerated youth to Illinois Youth Center Warrenville, (around) an hour’s drive outside Chicago.
The separation between prisoners in rural areas and their communities and families, who often live in the city, has long been an issue in discussing community bonds and rehabilitation for the formerly incarcerated. But the issue took on a new meaning during a hearing on a report by the U.S. Department of Justice that found more than 15 percent of incarcerated youth in Illinois reported being sexually assaulted by prison staff or guards. The hearing was held July 30 in Chicago by the Illinois House’s Restorative Justice Committee.
Illinois is one of four states, including Georgia, Ohio and South Carolina, where juveniles report rates of sexual assault at least 35 percent above the national average. The recently closed Illinois Youth Center Joliet was among the top 10 juvenile prisons in the country for rates of sexual assault, with 21.1 percent of youth reporting sexual assault.
While the difficulty many parents have visiting incarcerated youth did not lead to, and likely would not have stopped, the sexual assault, Kaba argues that so many youth were silent for so long because they have few people, if any, around them they feel they can trust. Kaba was one of the panelists on Restorative Justice Committee’s hearing.
“A lot of kids are isolated when they end up in prison, isolated from the folks they trust,” Kaba said. “It’s not something you report to just anyone.”
Currently, youth behind bars can call an automated hotline to report allegations of sexual assault. From the start of January 2013 to the end of July, 20 percent of the calls the hotline received were being investigated as sexual assault allegations, according to Arthur Bishop, director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, who spoke at the Restorative Justice Committee’s hearing.
Bishop acknowledged that since the Department of Justice report came out, the agency has been in damage control mode. Within the past month, the Department of Justice has updated youth handbooks, started a review of the grievance process for complaints and instituted additional training for staff members about sexual misconduct.
The police are “zero tolerance,” Bishop said. The agency also hired an external team to review and analyze the “policies and procedures” geared to assist the department in protecting incarcerated youth,” he added.
But for an issue as sensitive as sexual assault, especially with a primarily young male population, that is not enough, Kaba said.
This is compounded by the fact that once a juvenile is incarcerated, he or she no longer has a lawyer that visits regularly. At parole hearings, juveniles are not guaranteed legal counsel. This makes visits from relatives particularly important, Kaba said.
“It takes years of healing to be able to stand up [for yourself], when that authority has made it clear that you are not allowed to talk about that,” Kaba said. “You ask them to call a hotline that has people running it who are violating them. We need independence. Young people need their own advocate, [someone] they trust within the system”
In the long term, Kaba would like to see prisons closed and rehabilitation “devolved to the community level.” She argues that assault is endemic to the prison system, and until juveniles are removed, it will continue.
But more immediately, having an independent advocate for youth “would at least give them a fighting chance,” she said. She wonders whether the Department of Justice numbers are high enough, considering how difficult it is to come forward about sexual assault.
“If a kid was being assaulted, who would he talk to besides his mother?” she asked.